On This Day in May

Feast Day of St Bertha, 1st May

Gordon Griffiths / Queen Bertha / CC BY-SA 2.0
Gordon Griffiths / Queen Bertha / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bertha was born in modern-day France to Charibert, king of Paris, and his wife Ingoberga sometime after 561 AD. She married the pagan King Athelberht of Kent, probably in the late 570s, on the condition she could bring her chaplain Liudhard with her and practice her Christian religion freely. Her husband gave her the church of St. Martin, a pre-existing Christian church, just outside the walls of Canterbury. Possibly there was a small Christian community still worshipping there.

Kent and the Franks had had close ties for a long time, as can be seen in the archaeological record demonstrating fashions and designs in Kent reflecting those of the Continental Franks. The Merovingians (in Frankia) may have had some kind of formal relationship or rule over the kingdom of Kent.

With a Christian queen in place, Pope Gregory sent his mission with Augustine to Canterbury in 596 AD. He wrote to Bertha as well as her husband urging them to support the mission to evangelise their people. The last known letter is in 601 AD and soon after that Athelberht married a new wife, so it seems Bertha died around this time.

The couple had at least two children: Eadbald and Athelburh. Eadbald initially remained a pagan and scandalously (in the eyes of the church) married his father’s second wife, although he converted later to the Christian faith. Athelburh was apparently always a Christian and married Edwin of Northumbria, taking her faith north with her in the same way her mother had brought it from Frankia.

Discovery of the Benty Grange Helmet, 3rd May 1848

Reconstruction of helmet
Reconstruction of helmet (c) Museums Sheffield [CC BY-SA 4.0]

3rd May 1848 saw Thomas Bateman’s discovery of the iconic Benty Grange Helmet. The helmet is a rare and precious surviving example of a boar crested helmet. Other similar finds, and references to them in poetry such as Beowulf, as well as imagery, indicate that they were an important symbol to the Anglo-Saxons representing strength and endurance.

Read more about the Benty Grange Helmet

Murder of Harthacnut’s tax collectors. 4th May 1041

Coin of Harthacnut
Coin of Harthacnut, Hedning [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

On 4th May 1041 the local citizens killed two of Harthacnut’s tax collectors while they were hiding in a monastery from the angry mob. Harthacnut had been made king the previous year and died in 1042, but in the meantime he managed to arouse the ire of the locals to an extraordinary degree. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry reads:

“AD 1041. This year Harthacnut caused all Worcestershire to be ravaged, on account of his two house-carls, who demanded the heavy impost; when the people slew them in the town within the minster.”

John of Worcester adds:

“In 1041 Harthacnut sent his house-carls over all the kingdom to collect the tribute which he had imposed. But the citizens of Worcester and the Worcestershire men rose in rebellion, and on Monday, May 4, slew two of them, named Feader and Turstan, who had hidden themselves under the roof of one of the towers of the monastery of that city.”

So what was going on?

Harthacnut was the half-brother of Harold Harefoot and both were sons of King Cnut who had died in 1035. Harthacnut was born around 1018, and had inherited the Danish throne from his father. However, the English throne was taken by Harold until the latter’s death in 1040. Harthacnut’s mother, Emma of Normandy, was Cnut’s second wife but she had reached an agreement with Cnut that her sons would take precedence over the sons of his first wife, these being Svein Knutsson and Harold. Harold was supposed to be acting as Harthacnut’s regent in 1035 but by 1037 he was accepted by the English as king due to Harthacnut’s continuing absence in Denmark. Harthacnut died suddenly on 1042 and his reign was summed up the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he “did nothing worthy of a king as long as he ruled.”

The reason for the events in Worcester was that Harthacnut imposed heavy taxation on the country to pay for his fleet of ships, estimated at more than £23,000. The local people were unhappy about this demand and it is possible there was resentment dating back to payment of the Danegeld during Athelred UnRede’s reign. If so, Harthacnut’s Viking heritage could well have brought back bitter memories. There is even the possibility that Godgifu (or Godiva) was driven to protest the excessive taxation of her husband, Leofric Earl of Mercia, which could have related to Harthacnut’s demands – this is purely speculative however.

Coronation of Athelred Unrede, 4th May 979

Athelred Unrede
Athelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abingdon, c.1220 © The British Library, MS Cott. Claude B.VI folio 87, verso

On 4th May 979 AD King Athelred (later called “UnRede” meaning “Ill-Advised”) was crowned following the murder of his brother Edward (“the Martyr”) at Corfe Castle a year before.

Athelred was the son of Edgar the Peaceable and Alfthryth; he was was only a young boy when his father died in 975 AD, probably about 9 years old. His half-brother Edward was chosen as king, being an adult male of the royal house. 

Following Athelread’s succession – delayed while Athelred and his mother tried to gain support – the boy remained under the control and influence of a triumvirate of his mother, Athelwold, Bishop of Winchester, and Alfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia. The men died in 984 AD and 983 AD respectively and Athelred took the opportunity to enjoy greater independence by reducing the power of the church. During this period there were Viking raids around the country and the Battle of Maldon saw the death of Earl Byrhtnoth in Essex in 991 AD. Athelred repented of his deeds as things went from bad to worse, and by 993 AD was supporting church reform.

The depredations of Olaf Tryggvason and Swein of Denmark continued in spite of his change of heart. In 1002 he ordered the killing of Danes in England following a rumour that they were plotting to kill him, which became known as the St Brice’s Day massacre.

His leading men appear to have been a poor bunch, accused of treachery and cowardice by the chroniclers. By 1013 when Swein arrived at the mouth of the Humber the area of England traditionally part of the Danelaw submitted to him without a fight. By Christmas Athelred fled to Normandy and all England was under Danish rule. A few weeks later in February 1014 Swein died and the witan recalled Athelred rather than submit to Cnut. Athelred promised to remedy each one of the things they abhorred, and returned to his throne. By 1016 he too was dead.

Athelred was described by John of Worcester thus:

“illustrious Atheling, a youth of graceful manners, handsome countenance, and fine person.”

Sadly posterity is harder on him and his long reign (the longest of any Anglo-Saxon king) is remembered as one of weakness and vacillation in the face of increasing Scandinavian pressure.

Feast Day of John of Beverley, 7th May

Beverley Minster
Beverley Minster, photo P Wicks

7th May is the commemoration of St John of Beverley, East Yorkshire. John was born in the East Riding of Yorkshire at Harpham and educated at Canterbury in Kent. He then returned north to study at Whitby under Hilda. In 688 AD he was made Bishop of Hexham, and then moved to York in 705 AD following the return of the controversial Bishop Wilfrid. While at York he founded Beverley Minster around 700 AD and made Bercthun its first abbot.

Bede records a story about John’s household told to him by Herebald about an incident in his youth when he was a clerk to John.

Some of the young men were racing their horses and Herebald, who had been given a good horse by John, wished to join but was forbidden. Eventually, as he watched races, he could not resist any longer and disobeyed John’s orders. Here is the rather lengthy account:

“When they had several times galloped backwards and forwards, the bishop and I looking on, my wanton humour prevailed, and I could no longer refrain, but though he forbade me, I struck in among them, and began to ride at full speed; at which I heard him call after me, ‘Alas how much you grieve me by riding after that manner.’ Though I heard him, I went on against his command; but immediately the fiery horse taking a great leap over a hollow place, I fell, and lost both sense and motion, as if I had been dead; for there was in that place a stone, level with the ground, covered with only a small turf, and no other stone to be found in all that plain; and it happened, as a punishment for my disobedience, either by chance, or by Divine Providence so ordering it, that my head and hand, which in falling I had clapped to my head, hit upon that stone, so that my thumb was broken and my skull cracked, and I lay, as I said, like one dead.

“And because I could not move, they stretched a canopy for me to lie in. It was about the seventh hour of the day, and having lain still, and as it were dead from that time till the evening, I then revived a little, and was carried home by my companions, but lay speechless all the night, vomiting blood, because something was broken within me by the fall. The bishop was very much grieved at my misfortune, and expected my death, for he bore me extraordinary affection. Nor would he stay that night, as he was wont, among his clergy; but spent it all in watching and prayer alone, imploring the Divine goodness, as I imagine, for my health. Coming to me in the morning early, and having said a prayer over me, he called me by my name, and as it were waking me out of a heavy sleep, asked, ‘Whether I knew who it was that spoke to me? I opened my eyes and said, ‘I do; you are my beloved bishop.’ – ‘Can you live?’ said he. I answered, ‘I may, Through your prayers, if it shall please our Lord.’

“He then laid his hand on my head, with the words of blessing, and returned to prayer; when he came again to see me, in a short time, he found me sitting and able to talk; and, being induced by Divine instinct, as it soon appeared, began to ask me, ‘Whether I knew for certain that I had been baptized?’ I answered, ‘I knew beyond all doubt that I had been washed in the laver of salvation, to the remission of my sins, and I named the priest by whom I knew myself to have been baptized.’ He replied, ‘If you were baptized by that priest, your baptism is not perfect; for I know him, and that having been ordained priest, he could not, by reason of the dullness of his understanding, learn the ministry of catechizing and baptizing; for which reason I commanded him altogether to desist from his presumptuous exercising of the ministry, which he could not duly perform.’ This said, he took care to catechize me at that very time; and it happened that he blew upon my face, on which I presently found myself better. He called the surgeon, and ordered him to close and bind up my skull where it was cracked; and having then received his blessing, I was so much better that I mounted on horseback the next day, and travelled with him to another place; and being soon after perfectly recovered, I received the baptism of life.”

In the 10th century John was still benefitting the local community. The king, Athelstan, visited Beverley on his way to battle in the north and prayed for victory at John’s shrine. Following the defeat of his enemies, Athelstan refounded Beverley church as a collegiate community of canons and granted it land and a number of privileges including the right of sanctuary.

Start of excavation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, 8th May 1939

Image showing Brown’s excavations
Image showing Brown’s excavations: DocDee

On 8th May 1939 Basil Brown began his excavation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. He had been invited to dig by Mrs Edith Pretty, the landowner, and had spent time in 1938 digging Mound Three. But in 1939 he was destined to excavate “one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time.”

Basil Brown was born in 1888 near Ipswich but the family moved to Suffolk when he was a baby. He left school at the age of 12 to work on his father’s farm. However, he also attended evening classes and obtained a certificate in drawing in 1902. By 1907 he had earned diplomas for astronomy, geography and geology by correspondence courses. He then taught himself to speak fluent French and Latin.

After his marriage he continued working the farm but it became unviable and he then worked as a special constable, all the time continuing his studies in astronomy, publishing articles on astronomical guides and mapping.

He also continued to investigate local fields for archaeological finds of Roman remains. He discovered 8 medieval buildings and some Roman settlements as well as tracing ancient roadways. He discovered a Roman kiln which was excavated by the Ipswich Museum in 1935. These contacts enabled him to take on archaeological contracts with the Museum and he began to earn a semi-regular income from the work.

Meanwhile Mrs Edith Pretty had been wondering what lay under the mounds on her land at Sutton Hoo, and was advised to discuss it with Guy Maynard from the Museum. Maynard then released Brown from his current contract to go and work at Sutton Hoo in 1938 for two weeks. During this brief piece of work Brown was able to establish that three mounds were burial sites which had been robbed out. Nevertheless he uncovered some Saxon pottery and, interestingly, ship rivets.

On 8th May 1939 he returned for a second season and started to excavate what is now known as Mound 1. We’re going to follow his progress over the coming weeks, and discover with him what lay beneath.

Death of King Osric of Northumbria, 9th May 729

Northumbria from Lindisfarne
Northumbria from Lindisfarne, photo P Wicks

King Osric died on 9th May 729 AD, according to Bede (EH Bk 5 ch 23):

“immediately after Easter, that is, on the 9th of May, Osric, king of the Northumbrians, departed this life, after he had reigned eleven years, and appointed Ceolwulf, brother to Coenred, who had reigned before him, his successor; the beginning and progress of whose reign were so filled with commotions, that it cannot yet be known what is to be said concerning them, or what end they will have.”

John of Worcester also helpfully reminds us that:

“It was to king Ceolwulf that Bede, the servant of God, priest and monk, dedicated his Ecclesiastical History of the English nation. Ceolwulf was the son of Cutha, who was son of Cuthwine, who was son of Egwald, who was son of Aldhelm, who was son of Occa, who was son of Ida, who was son of Eoppa.”

Osric may have reigned for eleven years but details are short. He was probably a son of King Aldfrith, and a brother to Osred who reigned 705-716 AD. Sandwiched between Aldfrith’s boys was King Cenred, who reigned 716-718 AD.

Back in the glorious 7th century Northumbria had enjoyed some strong leadership under Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, followed by Ecgfrith and Aldfrith. But from then on the kingdom was plagued with short reigns, internal conflicts and general commotion so that by the time the Vikings took York it was almost a relief.

Bede was writing his Ecclesiastical History in the early 8th century as the turmoil was getting up steam. He completed it in 731 AD and died in 735 AD while Ceolwulf was still on the throne. Even so, Ceolwulf’s early reign had been difficult, as Bede attested, and there was an attempted coup when Ceolwulf was seized and forcibly tonsured in 731 AD. He returned to his throne but eventually resigned in 737 AD to become a monk on Lindisfarne. Possibly he was most fondly remembered by the monks there because after he joined them they could then afford beer and wine, whereas before they could only have milk.

Eadbert who followed him reigned for 18 years, facing down a threat from Offa of Mercia in 750 AD,  but after that it was all very brief and bloody with 10 different reigns between 758-808 AD, some of them the same king coming back for a second try.

Northumbria’s Golden Age was over and Mercia was the kingdom to watch with Offa leading his people to international renown during a reign that lasted 757-796 AD.

Coronation of Edgar, King of England, 11th May 973

Coronation Oath
Coronation Oath, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII

11th May 973 AD saw a coronation of a king who had come to the throne 15 years earlier. It was a Day of Firsts.

It was the first coronation of a King of England, rather than “King of the English” (the title had been used before, but not at a coronation).

It also saw the first coronation of a Queen of England. 

And the ceremony that was devised for this momentous occasion in 973 AD is in fact still the basis of the one in use today and was used, in essence, for the coronation of the current Queen, Elizabeth II.

As an aside, 11 May 1068 was the date for the coronation for Matilda of Flanders, wife of William of Normandy, as Queen of England.

Edgar the Peaceable had become King of the Mercians and Northumbrians in 957 AD while his brother Eadwig remained King of Wessex.  When Eadwig died in 959 AD Edgar took full control. His reign was remembered nostalgically as a Golden Age and his later coronation at Bath in 973 AD was intended to make a powerful statement about his kingship.

The choice of Bath, an Imperial Roman city on the border of Mercia and Wessex, was new. Previous Wessex Kings had often been crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames west of London near the border with Mercia. Following the new and glittering ceremony Edgar then marched his army to Chester along the Welsh Marches and upon his arrival eight kings met him. John of Worcester writes:

“Edgar the Pacific, king of England, being then in the thirtieth year of his age, received the benediction of the bishops S S. Dunstan and Oswald, and all the other bishops of England, and was crowned and anointed as king with great pomp and ceremony at the city of Acamann (Bath) in the first indiction, and on the fifth of the ides [the 11th] of May, being Whitsunday. Shortly afterwards, he sailed round the north coast of Britain with a large fleet and landed at Chester. He was met, as he had given orders, by eight tributary kings,’ namely, Kenneth, king of the Scots, Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians, Maecus (Magnus), king of several isles, and five others, named Dufnal, Siferth, Hywal, Jacob, and Juchil, who swore fealty and bound themselves to military service by land and sea. Attended by them, king Edgar one day went on board a boat, and while they plied the oars, he took the helm, and steered skilfully down the course of the river Dee, and followed by his whole retinue of earls and nobles pursued the voyage from the palace to the monastery of St. John the Baptist. Having paid his devotions there, he returned to the palace with the same pomp. He is reported to have said to his nobles as he entered the gates that any successor of his might truly boast of being king of England when he should receive such honours, with so many kings doing him homage.”

In reality things may have looked rather different to the eight kings, and things may not have been quite the way described by the chroniclers. Nevertheless, Edgar was efficient and effective in his reign. He was accused later by Archbishop Wulfstan of York of being too keen to hire foreign mercenaries, but the overall impression was that he did what was necessary to maintain peace. He was not called “the Peaceable” because he was averse to military action – quite the reverse. His military strength was what kept the peace in troubled times.

Discovery of the Coppergate Helmet, 12th May 1982

Coppergate Helmet
Coppergate Helmet, photo (c) PWicks

12th May 1982 saw the discovery of the “Coppergate Helmet.” At about 2:40pm at the Coppergate dig in York, the bucket of the site’s mechanical digger struck a solid object. Believing the object was a stone, work was stopped to see how large it was. Examination of the object exposed a golden looking band on which lettering was clearly visible: it was not a stone but a helmet! It required rapid and careful removal as exposure to the air from its anaerobic soil resting place put the fragile remains at risk of rapid corrosion and the helmet was lifted at about 8.30pm.

Read more about the Coppergate Helmet

Discovery of the Cuerdale Hoard, 15th May 1840

The Cuerdale Hoard
The Cuerdale Hoard, British Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0]

On 15th May 1840 the immense Cuerdale Hoard was discovered by workmen repairing an embankment on the banks of the Ribble in Lancashire. According to the Preston Chronicle:

‘the numismatic collectors and connoiseurs (sic) are quite in a furor about the matter, and the spot where the treasure was found has, since the discovery, been more zealously scratched than any dunghill in the best populated poultry yard!’

Read more about the Cuerdale Hoard

Feast Day of Alfgifu the Younger, 18th May

Shaftesbury Abbey Angel
Shaftesbury Abbey Angel, Bell and Jeff from Wellington, New Zealand

18th May is the Feast Day of Alfgifu the Younger (also of Shaftesbury). She was the wife of King Eadmund (ruled 939-946 AD), the mother of kings Eadwig and Edgar, and grandmother of Edward the Martyr and Athelred UnRede. She was a benefactress of Shaftesbury Abbey and died in 944 AD before her husband.

Alfgifu’s mother was called WynflAd, attested in a charter of King Edgar; her father is not known. WynflAd was also closely linked with Shaftesbury Abbey.

Shortly after 975 AD Athelweard the Chronicler wrote Chronicon, which was a Latin translation of a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and contained information not otherwise preserved. In it he wrote:

“In the same year died also queen Elfgiva, wife of king Eadmund, and afterwards was canonized. In her tomb, with God’s assistance, even to the present day, miracles are performed in the monastery called Shaftesbury.”

This is the only reference to Alfgifu as queen, as she is otherwise referred to as the consort of Eadmund.

Naturally and in the finest tradition, following Alfgifu’s death there were miracles at her grave and she quickly became venerated as a saint.

Lantfred of Winchester, in the 970’s, wrote of a young man who, in the hope of being cured of blindness, went to Shaftesbury to the shrine of Alfgifu. He was hoping to be cured by “the venerable St Alfgifu […] at whose tomb many bodies of sick person receive medication through the omnipotence of God.”

William of Malmesbury later wrote that she had suffered ill health in life and after her death those who were blind, deaf or lame were all cured at her shrine. He also claimed that Alfgifu would secretly save those who were publicly condemned, she gave expensive clothes to the poor, and she had prophetic powers as well as powers of healing.

Her cult retained its popularity in later years, with her inclusion on a number of calendars and litanies from Winchester.

Death of Alcuin, 19th May 804

L-R Rhabanus, Alcuin and St Martin
L-R Rhabanus, Alcuin and St Martin, Public Domain

Alcuin of York died at Tours on 19th May 804 AD. The 7th century polymath studied at York and became a leading figure of Charlemagne’s Renaissance, before ending his career as Abbot of Tours.

He was born in Deira (approximately modern Yorkshire). Little is known about his parents, although his own writings suggest his family owned land in Yorkshire.  Alcuin was probably the most famous alumnus of the cathedral school at York. He studied under Master Alberht, and took over as master of the school in 767 AD when Alberht became Archbishop of York. This was when he inherited Alberht’s library which he later used as a foundation for his work at Charlemagne’s court.

Read more about Alcuin

Battle of Nechtansmere, 20th May 685

Dun Nechtain depicted on Aberlemno Stone
Dun Nechtain depicted on Aberlemno Stone stone #2, Aberlemno Parish Church, Scotland

The Battle of Dun Nechtain / Nechtanesmere / Pool of Garan was fought between Bruide mac Bili, King of Pictland, and Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, on 20th May 685 AD.

No archaeological remains of the battle have been recovered in the area and the site of the battle is not known, but “Dun Nechtain” is generally accepted as being the modern “Dunnichen” and “Nechtansmere” as being the loch which existed there until it was drained in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ecgfrith was the son of Oswiu and EanflAd. When he came to the throne Northumbria was a strong and successful kingdom and Ecgfrith defeated Wulfhere of Mercia in 674 AD to become, briefly, Bretwalda. However, in 679 AD he was beaten in the Battle of Trent by Athelred, Wulfhere’s brother and Northumbria’s decline began. Ecgfrith turned his attention northwards instead, taking lands from Rheged and endowing them to Ripon. In 681 AD the Northumbrians were in a position to establish Trumwine as the Bishop of Abercorn but Ecgfrith became over-confident. Ignoring the advice of St Cuthbert, never a good idea, in 685 AD he went north and there met in battle with Bruide mac Bili, the Pictish King.

Bruide had become king in 672 AD. He ousted Drest, the Pictish King who had submitted to Oswiu, and Oswiu had died in 670 AD. It may be that Bruide was the Pictish choice to challenge Northumbrian influence, and it may have therefore been Bruide who led the Pictish invasion of Northumbria in 672 AD at which encounter Ecgfrith was uncompromisingly the victor.

However, at Nechtansmere Ecgfrith, was killed and his army routed and Northumbrian domination of the area was broken. According to Bede, Ecgfrith rashly pursued the action against the advice of friends and of Cuthbert, and was killed for his sins against the Irish people in the previous year when he had sent an army to ravage that harmless and friendly nation.

As in war, Ecgfrith was not entirely successful in love. His first wife, Athelthryth, refused to consummate the marriage and left Ecgfrith; she later founded the Abbey of Ely close to her childhood home. His second wife, Iurminberg, was hostile to Bishop Wilfrid and as a result there was great upset in the kingdom.

Ecgfrith was buried on Iona and succeeded by Aldfrith, the remarkable scholar-king whose reign saw the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Codex Amiatinus, and probably the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses. Northumbria’s decline had begun during Ecgfrith’s reign but Aldfrith showed that its glory was not yet over.

Birth of Philip of France, 23rd May 1052

Effigy on Philip's tomb in Fleury Abbey
Effigy on Philip’s tomb in Fleury Abbey, We El [Public domain]

On 23rd May 1052 Henry I of France and Ann of Kiev had a son, Philip. Unusually the boy was crowned joint king with his father on his 7th birthday, in 1059. When Henry died on 4th August 1060, Ann ruled uniquely as regent of France until Philip’s 14th birthday in 1066, when he took sole control of the crown.

Philip is of interest to us because he too fought William of Normandy, despite his father having helped William in securing his dukedom in 1047 when William faced a revolt. Henry soon saw the error of his ways and later supported the Norman barons against William, dying while besieging Thimert, which had been occupied by the Normans since 1058.

Meanwhile William, after invading Scotland in 1072 and forcing Edgar Atheling to go into exile in Flanders, had returned to the continent in 1073 to deal with the invasion of Maine by the Count of Anjou. William quickly took Le Mans by 30th March and secured his base in northern France. However, the count of Flanders had accepted Edgar the Atheling into his court and also arranged the marriage of his half-sister Bertha to Philip.

In 1074 William was in Normandy once more, and Edgar the Atheling took the opportunity to return to Scotland from Flanders. Philip, in an attempt to oppose William, proposed that Edgar be given the castle of Montreuil-sur-Mer on the Channel, which would have given Edgar a strategic advantage. However, on his way to the castle Edgar’s ship was wrecked in a storm and he had to make land in England. He was forced to submit to William shortly afterwards, and abandoned his attempts to recover his inheritance.

Philip then turned his attentions to Brittany, leading to a revolt in 1075. Philip continued dealing with revolts and uprisings until he finally made peace with William in 1077, while William gave up his attempts to take Brittany.

Death of Archbishop Lanfranc, 24th May 1089

Lanfranc, Oxford Bodleian Library MS Bodley 569
Lanfranc, Oxford Bodleian Library MS Bodley 569

Lanfranc was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070 until his death on 24th May 1089.

He had been an Italian jurist who for reasons unknown decided to become a Benedictine monk and move to the newly founded Bec Abbey in Normandy, between Rouen and Bernay. The abbey had been founded in 1034 by Herluin, and Lanfranc’s arrival contributed to its reputation for intellectual scholarship. Lanfranc had previously taught at Avranches where he was master of the cathedral school, and built a strong reputation as a scholar. In 1042 he came to Bec initially to live a secluded life but was persuaded by Herluin to serve as prior and was master of the school by 1045.

Lanfranc was not afraid of controversy and he initially opposed the marriage of William of Normandy to Matilda, because he felt they were too closely related. He was given a sentence of exile for his trouble but was reprieved on the point of departure and given the task of persuading the Pope to approve the marriage. The pontiff had previously forbidden it in 1049 but his approval was eventually granted in 1059 on the condition that William and Matilda each founded a monastery in Caen. This approval earned Lanfranc William’s appreciation and gratitude, and in 1066 Lanfranc became Abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Étienne at Caen in Normandy, which William had founded as part of the marriage deal.

From this point Lanfranc influenced William’s policies regarding Church reform, and ensured the Cluniac reforms were implemented more widely. Lanfranc was probably also behind the papal benediction for the invasion of England in 1066, as this was provided by Alexander II, a close friend and possibly also a former pupil of Lanfranc.

When Archbishop Stigand was deposed on 15th August 1070, Lanfranc was nominated to the post and consecrated two weeks later on 29th August.

Lanfranc immediately ran into a dispute with another former student, Thomas of Bayeux, who was now Archbishop-Elect of York, and who asserted independence from the See of Canterbury and claimed jurisdiction over much of the Midlands. It was a dispute that was not resolved until 1127.

During his office Lanfranc continued to push for reforms to the Church, and regrettably to prefer the appointment of Normans over the English within its ranks. Although his appointees were not inappropriate they were not necessarily the strongest candidates.

His greatest service to William was in foiling the Revolt of the Earls in 1075, led by the Earls of Norfolk and Hereford. Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, had confessed to Lanfranc and was sentenced to death by William. Despite Lanfranc’s attempts at intercession, Waltheof was beheaded on 31st May 1076. He was the last of the Anglo-Saxon earls and the only English aristocrat to be executed during the reign of William of Normandy.

When William died in 1087 Lanfranc secured the succession for William Rufus. His own death followed within 2 years.

Death of Bede, 25th May 735

The Reckoning of Time
The Reckoning of Time, 11th-12th century copy, British Library, Royal MS 13 A XI

The Venerable Bede died on 25th May 735 AD at the 10th hour of the day. Most of what we know about him comes from his own writings, primarily “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” which was completed in 731 AD.

Bede left Jarrow only twice, visiting Lindisfarne in 721 AD and York in 733 AD. He lived the life of a scholar-monk, delighting in learning, teaching and writing. His most famous work is “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, but he also wrote a huge range of other works, some of which have been lost but others survive.

Read more about Bede

Death of King Edmund, 26th May 946

Eadmund I, Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings
Eadmund I, Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, British Library, Royal MS 14 B V

King Eadmund was murdered on 26th May 946 AD while attending mass for St Augustine at Pucklechurch. His wife Alfgith the Younger had died a couple of years before him.

Eadmund was the eldest son of Edward the Elder and Eadgifu, his third wife. He was born about 921 AD so would have been only about three when his father died and his half-brother Athelstan became king.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem recording the English victory at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD, Eadmund is given honourable mention alongside Athelstan, and so may have been already considered his heir.

“Her Athelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,

beorna beahgifa, ond his brothor eac,

Eadmund Atheling, ealdorlangne tir

geslogon aet saecce sweorda

ecgum ymbe Brunnanburh.”

“In this year King Athelstan, lord of warriors,

ring-giver of men, and also his brother,

atheling Eadmund, obtained eternal glory

by fighting in battle with the edges of swords

around Brunanburh.”

Eadmund succeeded to the throne in 939 AD at about the age of 18, and his reign was one of almost constant warfare.  Olaf III Guthfrithsson, who had been one of the losers at Brunanburh, took York following Athelstan’s death and invaded the Midlands. He met Eadmund at Leicester where they agreed a treaty dividing England between them. Olaf died in 941 AD and his cousin Olaf “Cuaran” Sigtryggson became co-ruler of York with Ragnall Guthfrithson until 944 AD. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the Northumbrians were false to their promises and chose Olaf as king. The Five Boroughs of the Midlands also submitted to them. In 943 AD Olaf stormed Tamworth, but Eadmund later fought back to re-take the Boroughs and Olaf and Ragnall were baptised – the Chronicle relates events as follows:

“AD 943. This year Anlaf (Olaf) stormed Tamworth, and great carnage was made on either hand; and the Danes had the victory, and much booty they led away with them: there, during the pillage, was Wulfrun taken. This year king Eadmund besieged king Anlaf and Archbishop Wulfstan in Leicester; and he would have taken them, were it not that they broke out by night from the town. And, after that, Anlaf acquired King Eadmund’s friendship; and King Eadmund then received king Anlaf at baptism, and he royally gifted him. ‘And that same year, after a good long time, he received King Regnald (Ragnall) at the bishop’s hands. This year King Eadmund delivered Glastonbury to St. Dunstan, where he afterwards became the first abbot.”

In 944 AD Eadmund then took York itself and expelled Olaf and Ragnall; there may have been rivalry between the two or possibly a coup that destabilised the Irish Vikings and gave Eadmund the victory.

Then in 945 AD he ravaged Cumberland and gave it to Malcolm, king of the Scots, as part of a treaty of mutual military support. In the same year he was involved in helping his nephew, Louis IV of France, regain his throne. Louis had been captured by Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks and Count of Paris, and Eadmund wrote threateningly to Hugh to ensure Louis’ release.

So we come to May 946 AD. Eadmund was at Pucklechurch and was stabbed by a man called Liofa. Further exciting details were later added to the story by John of Worcester:

“[AD 946.] On the feast of St. Augustine, the doctor of the English, being Tuesday, the seventh of the calends of June [26th May], in the fourth indiction, Eadmund, the great King of England, was stabbed to death at the royal vill called Pucklechurch, by Leof, a ruffianly thief, while attempting to defend his steward from being murdered by the robber. The king thus perished after a reign of five years and seven months: his body was carried to Glastonbury and buried by St. Dunstan the abbot.”

Allegedly Eadmund had banished Liofa some years before and the scuffle ensued when he ordered his steward to remove the man from the court. It is possible that Liofa had been sent to assassinate the king.

Eadmund was succeeded by his brother Eadred. 

Death of Wulfstan II Lupus, Archbishop of York, 28th May 1023

Sermon of the Wolf
Sermon of the Wolf, British Library, Cotton Nero A.i

Wulfstan II Lupus, Archbishop of York, died on 28th May 1023 at a time of great turmoil in England.

He was one of the most influential figures at the courts of both Athelred UnRede and Cnut. Little is known of his origins but he seems to have come from the east Midlands and he probably studied at a Fenland monastery, possibly Ely as he was buried there.

By 996 AD he was Bishop of London, and then became Bishop of Worcester in 1002 AD. He held this along with the Archbishopric of York until 1016 when he passed Worcester to Leofsige.

He was a powerful preacher and wrote in a vernacular and direct style that is forceful and direct, both in the original Latin and in translation to modern English. He employed a variety of rhetorical techniques to elicit a sense of urgency, such as phrase repetition, metaphorical language and alliteration.

It is thought that two of the poems in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may have been written by Wulfstan, both relating to Edgar (959 AD and 975 AD) as they reflect nostalgia for a Golden Age represented by the Christian unity of king, church and people.

He was skilled in all aspects of the law, ecclesiastical and secular. He composed law codes for both the kings he served and influenced their decisions. When Cnut succeeded Athelred he consecrated the church founded by the king on the site of the Battle of Ashingdon for the souls of those killed in the fighting.

He was an accomplished administrator and we have some documents, such as the earliest cartulary (copy of charters) from Worcester, annotated in his own handwriting. Much of his time and energy was spent in training and organising the secular clergy outside of monasteries and therefore of monastic reform. This resulted in the Canons of Edgar, produced 1004-1008 AD.

Wulfstan was a prolific writer and much of his writing relates to the duties of the clergy. However, he did not neglect the moral reform of the laity and wrote “Institutes of Polity” which describes the duties of every level of society from the King down. He is most famous now for his sermon “The Sermon of the Wolf to the English” (written about 1010-1016 AD), written during the Danish invasions and conquest. It is a masterpiece of rhetoric, using repetition and alliteration to drive his message home. In it he describes the suffering of the people for their sins, and begs his countrymen to amend their behaviour and repent.  He said:

“Nothing has prospered now for a long time either at home or abroad, but there has been military devastation and hunger, burning and bloodshed in nearly every district time and again. And stealing and slaying, plague and pestilence, murrain and disease, malice and hate, and the robbery by robbers have injured us very terribly. And excessive taxes have afflicted us, and storms have very often caused failure of crops; therefore in this land there have been, as it may appear, many years now of injustices and unstable loyalties everywhere among men.”

Ordination of Byrnstan, 29th May 931

Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral, WyrdLight.com / CC BY 3.0

On 29th May 931 AD Byrnstan was ordained Bishop of Winchester.

Originally he had been a thegn of Edward the Elder, when he attested charters for the years 900–902 AD. In 902 AD he then became a priest, and very probably a secular canon in the New Minster of Winchester, which Edward established under the leadership of Grimbald. From then until 910 AD he frequently appears as attesting charters, including especially the series of grants made by the king to the churches of Winchester.

After this he vanishes from the record for twenty years. It’s possible he left the secular life of a canon for that of a monk. However, in 924 AD he was a mass priest in the household of the new king, Athelstan, and during that time he witnessed a charter freeing a slave.

Athelstan had not had a smooth succession and had been opposed by Frithestan and Winchester early in his reign, so he followed a policy of promoting men he could trust to important positions. In 931 AD the resignation of Frithestan prompted Athelstan to promote Byrnstan to the bishopric of Winchester in Frithestan’s place.

Byrnstan only served at Winchester for 2½ years and died on 1st November 933 AD.

The only acts of Byrnstan as bishop that have survived are his attestation of a few charters. He had been bishop so briefly that his saintliness and charity were almost at once forgotten, until his memory was revived, a generation later, by Bishop Athelwold to whom he is supposed to have angrily complained that in heaven he was honoured equally with Birinus and Swithun, but he was neglected in Winchester.

William of Malmesbury reports his sanctity, his humility, and his care for the poor, whose feet he daily washed, and to whom he gave generously. However, his cult never really became popular.

Feast Day of St Walstan, 30th May

Walstan from the rood screen detail, St Andrew's church, Great Ryburgh, Norfolk
Walstan from the rood screen detail, St Andrew’s church, Great Ryburgh, Norfolk

30th May is the Feast Day of St Walstan, once a popular saint but now less well known.

He was born around 970 AD to Benedict and Blitha. His mother, Blitha, was supposedly related to Athelred UnRede and Eadmund Ironside, and she later became a saint. There is evidence for chapel dedicated to her in Martham which was still in place in the 15th century.

Walstan experienced visions as a boy and when he was thirteen his parents told him to leave home and go to Taverham to become a farm labourer. This he did, and as he travelled he gave away his rich clothes to the poor and needy that he met on the way. When he started work on the farm he worked hard, keeping only what he needed to live and giving away the rest. He only agreed in addition to keep two white calves.

Visions continued to visit him, until one night in 1016 he had one of his imminent death. He managed to find a priest to give him the last rites, and as he knelt in prayer a spring arose from the dry earth allowing the priest to carry out the final sacrament. When he died the white oxen drew his cart without human guidance, stopping twice on the way and finally arriving at Bawburgh where Walstan was then buried. At each of their stopping places a spring appeared.

Walstan was a popular saint and a chapel was soon built off the existing church and dedicated to him. He was the saint of farmers and farm labourers, and continued to attract pilgrims for many years until the shrine was destroyed in the Reformation.

In the 19th century miracles were claimed for the water of Walstan’s well: leg ulcers and other afflictions were said to be cured. In 1913 it was called the Lourdes of Norfolk following the reported cure for an eye problem and in 1928 miracles were once again claimed for the well, based on the water supposedly containing the scientifically proven miracle cure of the day: radium.

Death of Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, 31st May 1076

Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, was executed on 31st May 1076. He was the last English earl following William of Normandy’s invasion of 1066, and the only English aristocrat executed during the reign of William.

He was the second son of Earl Siward, and only a child when the Earl died. His older brother Osbearn had been killed in 1054, along with his cousin Siward, fighting alongside his father Earl Siward against King Macbeth in Scotland. The Earl died in 1055 without an adult heir and was buried at Galmanhowe in York, in his church dedicated to St Olaf (St Olave). Edward the Confessor made Tostig Godwinson the new Earl of Northumbria, with disastrous consequences.

Waltheof may have been intended for a monastic or ecclesiastical career, but in 1065 Tostig was expelled by the thegns of Yorkshire and Northumbria at a meeting in York because of various murders and assassinations by or on his behalf. They seized his goods and treasures, and murdered his household. Morcar was chosen to be the new Earl, then they marched south to ask the King to confirm his appointment formally. At a council in Oxford in September Harold Godwinson tried to reach an agreement between his brother Tostig and the Northumbrians but failed. In the end King Edward agreed to the appointment of Morcar and Tostig fled to Flanders with his wife Judith.

Three months later King Edward was dead and Harold was chosen as the English King by the Witan. Northampton and the area around it had been devastated by the Northumbrians during their march in 1065 and left much the poorer as a result. At some time before 1067, and possibly in 1065 when Morcar took the Earldom of Northumbria, Waltheof was made Earl of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. By 1067 he was with William in Normandy as one of a number of English hostages, and remained there until 1068.

Although Waltheof had initially made his peace with William of Normandy he joined the Danes and Edgar Atheling in their rebellion in 1069, when Waltheof helped Edgar take York and attacked the fleeing Normans with his axe. The uprising resulted in the deadly Harrying of the North by William of Normandy and Waltheof made peace with William the following year and married William’s niece, Judith of Lens. The couple had three children: Maud, Adelise and Uchtred. According to the Domesday Book he had a hall at Halun (Hallam, Sheffield). In 1072 William expelled Gospatric from the Earldom of Northumbria and made Waltheof the Earl of Northumberland (a smaller domain than Northumbria).

In 1075 Waltheof attended the wedding of Ralph, Earl of Norfolk, to Emma, daughter of Earl William FitzOsbern of Hereford. Together with Earl Roger of Shrewsbury and some bishops and abbots the men plotted to overthrow William of Normandy in what became known as “The Earls’ Uprising”.

William found out about the plot later while he was in Normandy, and Roger and Ralph were identified as the main ringleaders. It was Waltheof who had lost his nerve (John of Worcester says he was forced to join the plot against his will) and confessed everything to Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He then went to Normandy to meet William where he tried to negotiate a pardon in exchange for a payment of treasure. William lured him back to England with generous words and then threw him in prison despite Lanfranc’s attempts to intercede. Judith, Waltheof’s wife, claimed that he had been entirely complicit.

That Christmas William sat at Westminster and decided the punishment for the plotters. Some were blinded, others banished, but Waltheof was sentenced to death. His possessions were all given by William to Judith (who you recall was William’s niece as well as Waltheof’s wife).

Following his execution on St. Giles Hill, Winchester, he was “thrown into a hole” (John of Worcester) but eventually his remains were taken to Croyland, of which Waltheof had been a generous benefactor, and buried honourably. The abbey had a fire in 1092 and so the abbot moved Waltheof’s remains into the church. The coffin was opened and Waltheof’s head was found to be miraculously attached once more to his body, which was undecayed. This miracle brought many pilgrims, and a significant income, to the abbey thereafter.

The skald Thorkill Skallason wrote of Waltheof:

“William crossed the cold channel and reddened the bright swords,
and now he has betrayed noble Earl Waltheof.
It is true that killing in England will be a long time ending;
A braver lord than Waltheof

Will never be seen on earth.”

Waltheof, at Croyland Abbey, west front of ruined nave, 4th tier
Waltheof, at Croyland Abbey, west front of ruined nave, 4th tier by Thorvaldsson, CC BY-SA 3.0